Earth Day arrives this year at a surreal time that people have provocatively called the great “anthropause”, a brief sigh in the Anthropocene Epoch that is itself named for our human influence on the planet. During this pandemic year, the human thrum waned – and to such a degree that the seismic vibrations we make plummeted by a third. The silence was something. “Finally,” as author Steven Lovatt observed in his book, “Birdsong in a Time of Silence”, “the Earth could hear itself think, and the voice of its thought was birdsong.”
Here in the UK, we are just emerging from what is said to be the world’s longest lockdown. We are venturing out again as the pandemic continues to unfold, with grim numbers ebbing and surging in various parts of the world. This surreal year has left people scarred, changed in ways we have yet to fully understand. But it is spring, and one can hope that the pandemic experience may have led many people to newly appreciate the gifts of the great outdoors.
I write from England, where the pandemic led the British passion for gardening to reach epic proportions. Seed sales soared, and queues for communal allotment garden plots skyrocketed. Gardening was second only to television watching as the most popular lockdown activity, according to GlobalData marketing research. In the interludes when people were allowed to venture out, the UK’s national parks attracted unprecedented numbers of visitors – many, apparently, first timers who had yet to learn a thing or two about how to behave in the natural world.
Worldwide, people were captivated by pictures of changes taking place outdoors in our absence. There were viral scenes of goats in the small Welsh town of Llandudno, and deer on an East London housing estate – and scenes of swans and dolphins in Venice that proved to be merely wishful thinking. We took a new interest in the everyday creatures in our own back yards. (Purchases of bird baths are said to have more than quadrupled.)
Could this galvanize something greater?
“…even in the grimmest days…this spring might be remembered differently – as the time when we first heard the birds and, hearing them, began to recover an appreciation of something universally necessary but which we had somehow mislaid...”
— Author Steven Lovatt
April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, was the birth of the modern environmental movement. That event “gave a voice to an emerging public consciousness about the state of our planet”. That time, to paraphrase the author L.P. Hartley, seems like a foreign country. Republican President Richard Nixon established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Measures that were among the first of their kind – federal acts to protect air and water quality – received sufficient breadth of political support, from “Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, urban dwellers and farmers, business and labor leaders” – perhaps, in part, because they had vividly witnessed the surreal scene from that time: the Cuyahoga River aflame.
The pandemic turns up the volume of that earlier call. Somewhere between the swabbing of the grocery-store packaging and the relentless cleaning of every high-touch surface at home – we began to understand that one refuge from the invisible threat was not within our walls, but in the outdoors. Green spaces became more important to people during the lockdowns – confirming what neurologist Oliver Sacks had long observed about the healing power of nature before his death in 2015. Since then, science has underlined that actual risk of transmission to the virus is lower in the fresh air – a discovery that would not have surprised Florence Nightingale, the mother of modern nursing and an early advocate of the curative power of “open air”.
This year, Earth Day arrives on the heels of wildfires in California and Australia, and new awareness from the pandemic itself about a need to rethink our interaction with wildlife – but also against a background of sharp political division. In the United States, the Biden administration is hosting an international, virtual Summit on Climate, seeking to similarly galvanize world leaders to address climate change goals that are well short of measures needed. Here in the UK, meanwhile, questions are surfacing about how committed the UK is to pursuing the policies needed to help lead the way as the host of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November – itself the subject of questions about whether an event in person is feasible, and whether an online or hybrid event is doable.
It is a singular, sobering time. Yet, as history shows, victories can emerge from dark times. Technological advances and scientific breakthroughs make achievements we once thought impossible well within our grasp, as the speed of innovation on COVID-19 vaccinations powerfully illustrates.
One wonders, will we look back on this period as a time that was defined only by loss and suffering? Or will this also be the time that also marked a turning point in our relationship with the world of nature?
As Lovatt has observed, “…even in the grimmest days…this spring might be remembered differently – as the time when we first heard the birds and, hearing them, began to recover an appreciation of something universally necessary but which we had somehow mislaid…”